A study finds that infants from bilingual homes pay attention to new information faster than other children.

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Research has shown that kids who grew up in bilingual homes may have better attention.

The jury is still out on the long lasting effects of learning two languages in the home.

People have credited the so-called bilingual advantage with providing a variety of long-term cognitive benefits, although some studies question whether the advantage exists at all.

Meanwhile, researchers have observed some of the alleged benefits of bilingualism in preverbal children.

Based on the findings of their new study, they have concluded that living in a bilingual home helps children develop greater flexibility in acquiring new information, even before they learn to speak at all.

The study, from Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) in Cambridge, United Kingdom, appears in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

The hypothesis under investigation is whether the more complex linguistic environment in a bilingual home prompts an infant to develop the ability to switch their attention more rapidly between different stimuli.

Dean D’Souza, who is a senior lecturer in psychology at ARU, is the lead author of the study. D’Souza and colleagues write:

“We propose that exposure to more varied, less predictable (language) environments drive infants to sample more by placing less weight on consolidating familiar information in order to orient sooner to (and explore) new stimuli.”

Dean D’Souza explains, “We know that babies can easily acquire multiple languages, so we wanted to investigate how they manage it.”

“Our research suggests that babies in bilingual homes adapt to their more complex environment by seeking out additional information.”

The researchers analyzed eye tracking data from 102 infants between the ages of 7 and 9 months.

Half of the infants were from bilingual homes. The researchers considered a home bilingual if the child was exposed to two or more languages daily and heard their first language no more than 75% of the time. The other 51 infants served as a control group.

The researchers showed each infant a series of pictures and observed their target of attention using a Tobii Pro TX300 remote eye tracker and a camera.

The scientists carried out four experiments with each child:

  1. Switch task: This task tracks the viewer’s tendency to anticipate the arrival of new images after viewing a repeating pattern of different images.
  2. Visual memory task: This task ascertains whether a participant notices minute differences between two images and changes focus as a result.
  3. Representations task: This task is essentially the opposite, in that it assesses how the participant responds to less detailed differences.
  4. Gap overlap task: This measures a person’s ability to let go of one stimulus and quickly move their attention to another.

The results of the image tests showed that infants from bilingual homes switched focus more often than those in the control group, suggesting that their home environment had caused them to become more adept at handling rapidly changing stimuli.

The study also found that these children were significantly faster than the control group at letting go of one image and refocusing on a new one.

“Is mere exposure to bilingual environments enough? We suggest that it is,” conclude the study authors. Not only that, they say, but also “because the infants had not yet begun to speak, it tells us that mere exposure to a second language is sufficient to observe a difference.”

As to exactly why this happens, D’Souza suggests, “Bilingual environments may be more variable and unpredictable than monolingual environments — and, therefore, more challenging to learn in.”

He adds: “Scanning their surroundings faster and more frequently might help the infants in a number of ways. For example, redirecting attention from a toy to a speaker’s mouth could help infants to match ambiguous speech sounds with mouth movements.”

The authors, therefore, see the participants’ abilities as being an adaptive response to a particular environment rather than part of an overall advantage that bilingualism has bestowed upon them.

Looking ahead, the researchers are interested in investigating whether the early life attention-switching abilities that they observed affect children’s development over time.

Some studies have even suggested that growing up bilingual may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in older adults.